The eighteenth book in Patrick O’Brian’s great naval series more than maintains the standards he has set himself. There is no falling-off, no self-indulgence. That is all O’Brian fans need to know; they need have no fears. O’Brian’s energy, humour and skill continue unabated; if anything, his canvas is wider, more ambitious, more complex than ever.
There is no dying fall. We find all the principal characters assembled ashore, at Jack Aubrey’s ancient inherited estate in Devon. He, needless to say, is enmeshed in litigation and trouble, as he always is on land. He has no money and a frigid wife. His neighbour wants to enclose a parish common; Jack, a true old Tory, wants to stop such modern nonsense, regardless of the fact that this brings him into conflict with the admiral commanding the Brest blockade, where Jack should be but isn’t. Stephen Maturin and his far from frigid wife, Diana, are there too; so are various children (O’Brian pretends not to like children but writes about them – at least when they are not babies – with wonderful sympathy), horses, dogs, prizefighters, gamekeepers and publicans. A whole village comes to life to prove that although Jack Aubrey may be out of his element on land, the author of Testimonies is not.
We proceed back to sea (having learnt, incidentally, all we need to know about the law of enclosures and the customs of Regency prizefighters). But things are bleak: Aubrey’s marriage is on the rocks; Maturin’s money is lost too; worst of all, peace threatens and the end of all promotion and prize money. We begin to be alarmed: is O’Brian going to take our friends of seventeen volumes into disaster and tragedy? He has the range and the power to do it if he chooses, and he is no sentimentalist. But no: things turn; the sun comes out; best of all – because it proves another volume is on the way – Bonaparte escapes from Elba.
What is it that makes O’Brian such a compelling storyteller? He is exceptionally learned, and his irony and sense of fun preclude pedantry. He knows how to deploy suspense, bathos and surprise with a sure touch. Like Walter Scott, he can sketch great events as the background to personal drama. It is the latter that is the centre of our interest; the people are not just put there as an excuse for the history. He is necessarily ruthless, like all novelists who tell the truth; horror is not denied; the heart of darkness is recognised. He is a quite wonderful writer about nature, truly in Conrad’s class at sea, and perhaps better on land. He can write about a great two-decker ship of the line racing towards unseen gunfire through foam, squalls and fog, lit only by battle lanterns, in a way raises in us both the excitement and the fear; his horses and dogs and his old English countryside, with its birds and its trees and its smallholding yeomen, would be recognised by Constable and please Surtees. Above all, he can make us share his values – and can any novelist succeed unless he leads us first to understand the moral world he inhabits and then to share it? It is this certainty of value, combined with the gentleness and irony with which O’Brian treats the inevitable human failings of his characters, that makes more distinguished critics than this one mention Austen as the presiding genius of O’Brian’s writing; ‘an affiliation’, according to the New Yorker ‘of which she need not be ashamed’.
I am an unabashed evangelist for Patrick O’Brian, not just for the writer of this extraordinary series – surely now safe for ever among the very select band of successful sequential novels – but also for O’Brian the biographer of Picasso and Joseph Banks; O’Brian the poet and short-story writer; O’Brian the translator of de Beauvoir.
If Yellow Admiral had been no good, I would not have written about it; my disappointment and my affection for the man would have led me to find excuses in overwork connected with the Budget, or some such nonsense. But I need not have worried; this craftsman does not let down his admirers. Now, please, let us have number nineteen.